At its core, light painting is simple and fairly self-explanatory. You use light as the primary medium to create art, usually by capturing it in a photograph. There’s a lot of freedom and different styles, as there is with most art, but the most common styles involve using bright lights to illuminate a subject in interesting ways and/or create “trails” of light.
Light trails are captured using cameras that are set up to use a slow shutter speed and capture light over a relatively long period of time. It is actually a technique that has been around for a long, long time. Early cameras were not capable of a faster shutter speed, which meant early photographers actually had to work hard not to create light trails for standard photos, and many artists of the time would write words with lights or move cameras around to create fascinating surreal pictures as far back as 1889.
We have come a long way since then, with digital cameras that offer more options than early pioneers could have dreamed about available at a price anyone can afford. Light Painting transitioned from being a tool of obscure photographers to a neat trick anyone could do with a cell phone.
When drones entered the scene it opened a new dimension to the world of light painting, acting as a stable camera that could be placed in any location, or as a bright light brush for painting trails and illuminating otherwise impossible scenes. Drone light painting is the art of flying a drone with a light and capturing it with a slow shutter speed camera shot.
How does it work?
A camera is a device that captures light. It has ways of controlling how much light it captures. Aperture is the amount of light a camera lets in all at once, ISO is how sensitive the camera is to that light, and Shutter Speed is how long the camera lets in that light. It’s that last setting that is the most important for light painting.
The longer a shutter is open, the more it can capture and is what allows us to capture movement. Think of it like a video that is compressed down into a single image. If a bright light moves across the lens from left to right in a video, you would simply see a dot move across the screen. If you pushed all the frames of the video together, though, you would see a horizontal line.
Light Painting is dependent on long exposure, which means the hardest part of the process is finding the balance between too much and too little light. Since the sun is the brightest thing in our skies, you can’t light paint during the day, there would be so much light it would wash out the image entirely. That limits your canvas to the night or to being indoors, preferably in a place with very low light pollution or other light sources.
Even stars can be too bright for some forms of light painting, at the smallest aperture and lowest ISO a star in the night sky can look like a spotlight if the shutter speed is slow enough. When painting images in the sky with a drone it must be the most powerful light source in your shot. When highlighting a subject it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most powerful, but it still has to be bright enough to compete with other sources.
The biggest element that Drones add to the equation is their ability to move through the air and cover large distances. If you have a camera aimed at a drone it can fly patterns and construct complicated light trails.
If you have a camera focused on the subject the drone can project light onto the subject as it moves around and create intensely highlighted or unnatural scenes. If you are using the drone as a stable camera you can take the picture from angles and altitudes that you can not get with a traditional platform.
The Drone as the Paintbrush
To use the drone as a paintbrush it needs a good light mounted on it. That’s about it for the basics, most drones already have landing and location lights so if you have a long exposure camera you can make trails with even the most basic drones.
Simply set a camera in a stable place pointed at a dark background, start the picture and fly around. There are automated flight programs you can use to plot a path and draw images with, or use your thumbs to enter into the abstract.
In order to really utilize this method though you need a really bright light. Having a bright light opens up the world to you and extends your canvas from a few meters in front of a camera to potentially the entire night sky.
With compact LEDs rivaling the brightness of powerful HID flashlights, having a powerful light source on a drone is the best way to experiment with light painting. By pointing the light in a direction when affixing it to the drone you can focus on a subject and fly around the subject, highlighting it from all sorts of angles and directions. Facing the light in a direction means you can also point the light away from the camera, like lifting the brush from the canvas while painting.
The Drone as the Camera
The other way to light paint with drones is a bit more simple in terms of flying the drone. You do need a drone that can take long exposure shots, either with a more expensive camera or custom software.
It also must be capable of sitting still for as long as it takes to capture the image, so larger drones have an advantage here. With the drone as the camera, you will have to paint using other means like using a friend holding lights or moving a powerful light around a subject. The advantage is in the perspective.
A drone flying very high can point the camera straight down and suddenly a grassy field is your canvas. A drone hidden behind an object will capture the light around it making intense silhouettes. You can also use the world to paint for you, station a drone looking down towards a busy freeway and watch as the cars become streaks of light.
Automated Vs Manual
When it comes to using the drone for light painting, there are a few methods of flying. Using software to create automated paths can be useful for making shapes and images, whereas using a semi-automated orbit mode can create highlights and abstract paths or hold in a position to utilize the drone’s camera.
Going fully manual and using your thumbs to fly gives you the most control and allows you to put the light exactly where you want it, but is also the most technically difficult.
Using programs like Litchi you can turn your drone into a fully automated light paintbrush. It’s a simple matter of setting up multiple waypoints. Litchi can have up to 99 waypoints per path. This doesn’t mean you can’t have more, but if you do it will require you to set up another path to be initiated after the first. The overlap in paths may require you to cover the lens with your hand or time the capture to avoid a splotch of light at the overlap area.
So by drawing the flight path on-screen with waypoints that the drone will follow, it allows for complex shapes and designs. Being automated also means you have time to prepare the camera and start capturing at precisely the right moment which is especially essential for a one-person operation.
Drawing orbits around a center point can create vibrant contrasting light on a subject, or a drawn path with the light aiming at a large subject like a road or river will create images that are impossible using other means.
Using fully automated flight paths also means you can set the drone on a flight path and take multiple pictures with the same light every time, allowing you to dial in your camera settings to perfection without having to worry about losing the moment.
Litchi and other programs like DJI Go also offer a sort of semi-automated way of light painting. With settings like follow me, orbit, and point-of-interest you can have the drone do unique things that aren’t necessarily the same every time but still offer you the chance to take the picture independent of flying the drone.
Having the drone follow you down a path offers a wide range of interesting light painting scenarios, and sending it to fly and hold at a point can create a “shooting star” like effect. Orbit is especially common, with lots of people utilizing the “halo” of light around a subject.
Semi-Automated flying is also necessary if you are going to paint using the drone as the camera platform. Since oftentimes you will be the brush or the subject, you need the drone to fly to a location and hold in place while you paint. Fortunately, this is something most drone software can do.
Manual flying has the lowest amount of tech needed, but also has the highest skill ceiling. Any drone can be a light paintbrush if you strap a light to it, from the cheapest to the most expensive, all you really need are your thumbs and someone to start the camera.
Manual flight gives you the most control, you can aim the light anywhere you want or draw whatever shape you want, assuming you have the skill to do it. Using a smaller FPV drone while flying can give you unique perspectives and allow you to fly the drone acrobatically and through tight areas.
FPV drones are much faster and can create streaks of light that flip and ebb all over the place, under a bridge or around an unusually shaped subject or use directional lights to highlight only specific parts of a subject.
If you are flying outside at night to capture these images, there are rules and regulations you should follow. These rules vary by country, but in the US the FAA has laid out two types of drone operation, recreational flying and commercial flying which requires a part 107 certificate.
For Recreational Flying
As a hobbyist, as long as you are following all other laws concerning airspace there are no rules against night flight. This includes staying 5 miles away from airports, having lights on your drone, and staying within visual line of sight.
For Commercial Flying
If you are not just flying for fun and you have a commercial intent to sell the media, or you are doing it for a client, you will require a valid Part 107 license. If you have a part 107 the FAA defines night as starting 30 minutes after sunset and lasting until 30 minutes before sunrise, and may not fly during that time without permission.
If you want to fly at night you can apply for the 107.29 ”daylight operations” waiver. You can apply for a waiver using the FAA’s drone website, and you must have anti-collision lights on your UAV.
There is currently legislation in the works to allow night flight without a waiver, though at the time of writing this it is not yet law. Fingers-crossed.
The camera, first and foremost, must be able to take a long exposure photo. And while a cell phone or point and shoot may be able to do this in order to get the best results you need a camera that has full control over the exposure. For most people, this means a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a good lens.
A good range of apertures and focal lengths can help capture the image you want, allow you to alter the depth of field and choose from a larger range of ISO settings. If you want the absolute best results a full-frame camera with the largest sensor you can get will afford you the most control over the image.
Perhaps more important than the camera itself is the need to stabilize the camera. When taking a long exposure shot any movement can ruin the composition. Since human hands are only good until about 1/80th of a second, having a device that locks the camera in place is essential for shots where the shutter might be open for 15 seconds or more.
Camera mounts that can be attached to a variety of surfaces, tripods, and gimbals on stands are all good solutions. You can go low-tech and just set the camera somewhere as well, but having a stand will make your life much easier.
A remote shutter button can help you out even more. Even touching the camera to start the shutter can cause enough vibration to ruin your shot, and since you are also keeping track of a drone it’s much easier to have the camera set up and ready to start at the push of a button in your hand than it would be to have to move to the camera to press the shutter.
You can also use a timer, but remote timers are very inexpensive and you will quickly find that a simple button press is worth it over the panic of counting down.
If you don’t have the money to invest in a DSLR camera you can use your iPhone. The normal camera settings do not allow you to set up a long exposure but you can convert the live photos to a 3s exposure on your iPhone. Do this after taking the photo in Live mode, swipe up and go to effects, and select long exposure.
When light painting, as you can imagine, light is really important. Colored lights, bright directional lights, omnidirectional lights, and even string lights or el wire can be used to great effect. There are nearly unlimited options when it comes to light sources, and most drones have lights on them from the factory.
A very popular style of light comes in the form of powerful LEDs. There are even companies like LumeCube that sell mounts for drones with their lighting solutions making it easier than ever to equip your drone for light painting.
Several LEDs of a variety of colors can make a rainbow blurred pathway/river of light. You can build all sorts of different setups using LEDs and wiring them into the drone’s power source or to a separate power source. You can get artistic and creative with different colors and arrangements.
It’s always good to have other lights in addition to the lights on the drone as well. You can use them to create shadows or other light effects used in composition, as well as find things in the dark which is always useful when dealing with small parts and cold nights.
As with any drone operation, extra batteries are always a good thing to have on hand. The camera, the lights, and the drone will probably all run on separate power sources, and having any one of them out of power will ruin your photo expedition.
Since nights can be cold, you’ll want a way to stay warm and if necessary keep those batteries warm (follow your manufacturer’s recommendation.) A cold battery will not last as long and the low temperature can sap the juice right out.
Lastly, it’s always nice to bring a friend. They can operate the camera while you fly, operate the lights while you frame, and help spot the drone on a dark night.
Light painting is a fun way to create amazing photographs, and drones have opened up a world of possibilities in that field. Even if you just have an iphone and a cheap drone, you can get out there and start making beautiful light trails and add another method to the long list of ways we can enjoy this hobby and share art with the world.